The Snow Queen in Seven Stories — Third Story — The Flower Garden of the Woman Who Could Conjure
But what of Gerda, as Kai disappeared from the town and the lives around him? Of what had happened to Kai, no one could say, nor could any one give any information, save the boys who were in the square that Winter’s day, who said that Kai had tied his sledge to another very large one, which driven through the streets at reckless speed, and out the town gate.
There was no one who knew where the sledge had gone and many tears were shed for Kai, and Gerda wept bitterly for the longest time. In her heart she knew he must be dead; that he had drowned in the river which flowed past the school. The Winter days stretched out, dreary in their sameness and loneliness, and only reluctantly gave up their grasp to Spring. But at last a spring day came with warm sunshine.
“Kai is dead and gone,” said little Gerda.
“We don’t believe it,” said the sparrows.
“He is dead and gone,” she sobbed.
“I don’t believe it,” whispered the sunshine; and at last Gerda began to doubt it herself as she heard the words of the Somer-child.
“I will put on my red shoes,” she said one morning, “the ones that Kai has never seen, and I will go to the river and ask for the river to give him back to me.”
It was early morning when she kissed her sleeping grandmother, put on her new red shoes, and went alone out of the town gates until she reached the banks of the river.
“Is it true you have taken my heart from me?” she asked the river, “I will give you my new red shoes if you will give him back to me.” And in her hope it seemed that the waves on the river nodded to her in a strange manner. So Gerda took off her shoes, which she liked nearly better than anything else, and tried to throw them both into the river. But they fell short, and landed near the bank, where little waves carried them back to the land, as if the river would not take any more from her because they could not give her back Kai
But Gerda believed the shoes had not been thrown out far enough and so crept into a boat that lay amongst the reeds and, from the furthest end of the boat, once more threw her shoes into the river. But the boat was not moored and her movement sent it gliding away from the reeds and the river bank.
When Gerda saw this she hastened to reach the other end of the boat, but before she could reach it the boat had drifted beyond reach of the shore and moving faster than before as it was caught in the river’s current.
And Gerda was very frightened, and began to cry, but no one heard her except for the sparrows who could not carry her to land, but flew along the shore and sang as if to comfort her.
The boat traveled with the river, Gerda sat quite still with only her stockings on her feet; her red shoes floating behind the boat but beyond reach. And as pretty as the banks of the river were, with beautiful flowers, old trees, and sloping fields, there was not a person to be seen.
“Perhaps,” thought Gerda, “the river will carry me to Kai” and with that thought became more cheerful, raising her head to look a the beautiful green banks as the boat sailed on for countless hours.
At length the green banks gave way to a large cherry orchard, in which stood a small red house, with strange blue and red window, a thatched roof, and outside, two wooden soldiers that presented arms to her as she sailed past. Gerda called out to them, thinking they were alive, but of course they did not answer and, as the boat drifted closer to the shore she could see what they really were.
Now closer to the shore Gerda called out louder, and this time was heard. From the house came a very old woman, leaning on a crutch, wearing a large hat to shade her from the sun, and on it were painted all manner of pretty flowers.
“You poor child,” said the old woman, “how did you manage to come all this way by yourself on such a rapid rolling river?” And with those words the woman walked into the water, seizing the boat with her crutch, dragging it to the shore, and lifting Gerda out.
And of the shoes? Well they stayed with the current of the river to be swept away out of this story forever, although perhaps the river carried them to another, in time.
Gerda was glad to feel herself on dry ground, although she was somewhat afraid of the stranger, for all that she had rescued Gerda from the river.
“Come,” said the old woman, “tell me who you are and how you came here on that boat.”
And so, despite her fear, Gerda told her everything, all while the old woman shook her head, and went “Hmm, hmm”, and when she was finished Gerda asked if the old woman had seen Kai.
“No boy-child called Kai has passed this way,” said the old woman, “but it is likely he will come. Put aside your sorrow, taste the cherries and look at the flowers, for are they not the prettiest flowers you’ve ever seen?”
Gerda could see, even at a distance, that the flowers were better than any in her picture book, for each them seemed able to tell a story, each of their own. And so it was that the old woman took Gerda by the hand and led her into the house.
Inside Gerda could see that the windows were very high, and the panes coloured red, blue, and yellow, such that as the daylight shone through them the sunshine found itself in all sorts of singular colours. On the table stood a bowl of beautiful cherries and, realising her hunger, and at invitation from the old woman, Gerda wasted no time falling upon them.
While she was eating them the old women combed out Gerda’s long flaxen ringlets with a golden comb, and the curls hung down each side of Gerda’s face, which began to look more fresh and blooming as a rose as the grief of Winter days and river travel faded from her mind.
“I have long wished for a daughter like you,” said the old woman, “and now you must stay with me, for where else can you stay while you wait? And see how happily we shall live together”. And while she went on combing Gerda’s hair, Gerda thought less and less about Kai, for the old woman had a touch of the Old Wild to her and, although not fully wicked, a lifetime of loneliness made her desperate to keep Gerda in her life, and desperation can breed its own kind of wickedness. And so, as the magic of the Wild curled around the little girl, Gerda felt drowsiness sink into her, and from there she fell asleep.
While Gerda slept the old woman went out into the garden and, stretching her crutch towards the rose bushes, caused them to sink into the dark earth for, as beautiful as they were, the old woman was afraid that if Gerda saw them it would remind her of home, and of Kai, and that Gerda would run away.
When Gerda woke the old woman took her out into the garden. How beautiful it was, with the smell of honeydew, lilacs, lilies, and so many other flowers, hanging in the air. Every flower that could be thought of for every season of the year could be found here, and in full bloom, and no picture book would have more striking and honest colours than could be found here. Gerda jumped for joy, and played in the garden until the sun set behind the cherry trees, and she once more slept, this time in an elegant bed with red silk pillows embroided with violets, and she dreamed as pleasantly as a Queen on her coronation day.
And so it was that for the next day, and for a great many days after, Gerda played with the flowers in the silent, warm sunshine. She knew every flower, and yet, although there were so many of them, it still seemed as if something was missing, but what that could be, Gerda couldn’t tell. Until one day came to pass that, as Gerda was sat looking at the old woman, she looked at the flowers painted on it and saw that the prettiest of them all was a rose, for in remembering to hide the roses in the garden the old women forgot about the roses on her hat. But it is difficult to hold the memories of absolutely everything together, and one little mistake can upset all our arrangements.
“What,” cried Gerda, “are there no roses here? None at all?”
But the sparrows did not answer, and the sunshine was silent, and so Gerda ran out into the garden and examined all the beds, searching and searching in vain. And as she gave up she sat down and wept, her tears falling just on the place where one of the rose-trees had sunk down. The warm tears moistened the earth, and the rose-tree sprouted up at once, as blooming as when it had sunk; and Gerda embraced it and kissed the roses, and thought of the beautiful roses at home and, with them, Kai.
“Oh, how I have been kept from my search,” said Gerda. “I wanted to seek for Kai. Do you know where he is? Do you think he is dead?”
And the roses answered, “No, he is not dead. We have been in the ground where all the dead lie; but Kai is not there.”
“Thank you,” said Gerda, and then she went to the other flowers, and looked into their hearts and asked, “Do you know where Kai is?”
But each flower, drowsing in the sunshine, dreamed only of its own stories of history. Not one know anything of Kai. Gerda heard many stories from the flowers, as she asked them one after another about him.
And what, said the lily? “Hark, do you the drum? — ‘onwards, onwards,’ — there are only two notes, always, ‘onwards, onwards’. Listen to the women’s song of mourning! Hear the hollow words of the priest! In her clothes of black the widow stands by the grave of her husband, fallen in battle. The empty words swirl around her as her love is lowered into the ground, and all she can remember is the light of his eyes, and the love of her heart. Can the love of her heart be extinguished as easily as the light of his eyes?”
“I don’t understand that at all,” said Gerda.
“That is my story”, said the lily.
What, says the morning glory? “Near yon narrow road stands a knight’s castle, thick with ivy that covers and strangles the old ruined walls, leaf over leaf, even to the balcony. And on that balcony stands a beautiful woman who looks up the road. No cherry blossom caught by the wind floats more lightly than she moves. Her rich silk rustles as she peers and exclaims, “Will she not come?”
“It is not Kai that you speak of,” says Gerda.
“I am only speaking of a story of my dream,” replied the flower.
What, said the little snowdrop? “Between two trees hangs a rope. Tied to it is a piece of board and when all three are together, it is a swing. Two girls, in dresses white as snow. And with long green ribbons fluttering from their hats, are sitting upon it swinging. Their brother, taller than they, stands in the swing, one arm around the rope to steady himself. In one hand a bowl, the other a clay pipe and he is blowing bubbles. As the swing goes by the bubbles fly upward, reflecting the colours of the grass, the trees, the sky, the dresses, the most stunning varying colours. The last bubble still hangs from the bowl of the pipe and sways in the wind. On goes the swing while a little black dog comes running up. Almost as light as the bubble, raising himself on his hindlegs, he wants to be taken onto the swing, but it does not stop and the dog falls, barking and angry. The children stoop towards him, and the bubble bursts. A swinging plank, a light sparkling foam picture — that is my story.”
“What you tell me, it’s all very pretty” said Gerda, “but you speak so sorrowfully, and not at all of Kai.”
What do the hyacinths say? “There were three sisters, fair and delicate. The dress of the first was red, of the second blue, and of the third pure white. Hand in hand they danced in the bright moonlight, by the calm lake; but they were human beings, not the fair Sidhe. The sweet fragrance attracted them, and they disappeared in the wood; here the fragrance became stronger. Three coffins, in which lay the three sisters, glided from the thickest part of the forest across the lake. The fire-flies flew lightly over them, like little floating torches. Do the dancing sisters sleep, or are they dead? The scent of the flower says that they are corpses. The evening bell tolls their knell.”
“A story of sorrow,” said Gerda, “and your perfume is so strong, you make me think of the dead maidens. Is little Kai really dead then, for the roses say he is not?”
The hyacinth bells toll, “We are not tolling for little Kai for we do not know him. We only sing our song, for it is the only one we know”.
What, laugh the buttercups, dancing in the light of the sun? “The bright warm sun shines on a little court, on the first warm day of spring. The bright beams rest on the white walls of the neighboring house; and close by bloom the first yellow flower of the season, glittering like gold in the sun’s warm ray. An old woman sits in her armchair at the house door, and her granddaughter, a poor and pretty servant-maid, came to see her for a short visit. When she kissed her grandmother there was gold everywhere: the gold of the heart in that kiss; it was a golden morning; there was gold in the light that holds the Somer-child, gold in the leaves of the lowly flower, and on the lips of the servant-maid. There, that is my story,” said the buttercup.
“Your song does not speak of Kai,” said Gerda, “but my poor old grandmother! She is longing to see me, and is grieving for me as she did for Kai, but I shall soon go home, and bring Kai back with me. It is no use asking the flowers, they know only their own songs, and know no other.”
Gathering up her dress, Gerda ran to the other end of the garden. The door was fastened, but she pressed against the rusty latch and it gave way. Opening the door Gerda ran out into the wide world in her bare feet, and continued running until she could run no longer, looking back from time to time to see that no one seemed to be following her. And as she came to rest on a great stone she could see that Summer had passed, the Somer-child moved on, and that Autumn had dressed in all her finery of red and yellow leaves on the trees.
“Oh, how I’ve wasted my time?” cried Gerda, “It is already Autumn and I must not rest any longer.” But as she rose to carry on she found she could not, for her feet were wounded and sore, and everything around her looked so cold and bleak. Oh, dark and dreary the world seemed.